Serious story spoilers follow.
Everyone’s an asshole in Ubisoft’s latest open world action game, and here’s why that’s a good thing.
A week ago I finished Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs – a title I never thought I’d bother to play, let alone complete. I finish very few games, so to find myself having devoted the requisite thirty or so hours it took me to see the credits surprised me. Whilst there was plenty of motivation to keep plugging away – wildly entertaining gameplay, an expertly crafted world, fun minigames and excellent multiplayer – what I didn’t find myself eager to see through was the story itself.
So when Chum’s own Kelly asked me what I’d thought of the narrative after I finally put the campaign to bed, after dicking around with side missions and minigames as long as possible, I was intrigued to find myself torn as to how to reply. Sure, the main arc was a fairly simple affair, fueled by revenge and little else, but whilst this age-old tale didn’t offer anything particularly fresh, all the individual parts of the package made it something really special.
Strange, then, that the story has been universally panned, and protagonist Aiden Pierce has unanimously been cited as one of gaming’s most unlikable leads. Aiden’s blind quest for bloody vengeance wasn’t mind blowing, but it certainly wasn’t bad. I wasn’t able to empathize much with him, either, being that I don’t have any nieces, let alone dead ones, but he and his cohorts were interesting enough character studies that I found myself sitting up and paying attention during the cutscenes rather than trying to mash through them. Aiden is part of a dark future populated with depraved people. No one Aiden meets, aside from perhaps his heart-of-gold sister, has many redeeming qualities. Even harmless NPCs walking the streets will have some devious fact attached to them should you choose to scan them.
Instead, the hackers, politicians and gangbangers that people Aiden’s story are selfish, egocentric douchebags. Despite this, and perhaps depressingly, they form one of the most genuinely human cast I’ve encountered in a video game. Clara – a hacker who eventually teams up with Aiden – has a great story arc with some of the most ‘tender’ moments Watchdogs has to offer – but is still a conceited snake when she wants, or needs, to be. These players own up to their lack of loyalty, telling you up front they’ll throw you under the bus if it comes down to you or them. It’s not just hot air either, a few of them sell you out, and Aiden would probably do the same should the situation ever arise. Most surprisingly though, these betrayals aren’t friendship-ruining moments. It’s a ruthless world and players motives are laid out plain to see. Knowing why, and when, someone will stab you in the back makes them more trustworthy in a strange sort of way, and it’s weirdly refreshing.
Watchdogs’ Chicago is a brave new world, and everyone wants a slice of it. With the ctOS – a citywide cyber network connecting and collecting pretty much everything – controlling a lot behind the scenes, information quickly becomes power, and it’s a commodity in high demand. Even low-level ballers, who in other games might be simple drug dealers or killers for hire, are information brokers. Files, videos and secrets are paid for in blood and bullets, and every player on the scene seems to be willing to get their hands dirty simply so they don’t find themselves in a dangerous world with nothing to barter with. Everyone can be bought, not for a price, but with good old fashioned blackmail. In a world that records everything, nobody is innocent.
It’s these hard facts that drive a lot of motivations from the surrounding cast and give them a real believability. Again, Clara is a great example. She’s trying to make up for past mistakes, hoping no one will get desperate enough to sell her out, and the promise of getting some dirt on her previous employers proves motivation enough for her to join the crew. Weirdly, in a world where threats speak louder than actions and ethereal information is king, it’s the physical stuff that really hits home and reverberates. When he first meets Clara, Aiden gives her a hard shove in the collarbone and then grabs her around the throat, demanding what she knows. It’s a really powerful scene, reiterating that Aiden is out for himself, and he’s not squeamish about hurting people to get what he needs to protect his family, especially if he thinks they could be a threat. It also sends a chilling reminder that whilst information is power, power is still power too. Watching a guy twice her size grab Clara in such a manner was terrifying and electric at once. That they sweep bad first impressions under the rug and become hackbros for the rest of the game says a lot about what a ‘friend’ is in the world of Watchdogs, and speaks volumes about Aiden’s social graces.
What’s different about Aiden isn’t his motives, or even his methods. No, what sets him apart from his open-world brethren is that he is willing to question himself. Most sandbox action games will have you murder your way through countless hoards of enemies and innocents alike without ever conceding that there is a significant amount of blood on your hands. By the games close, Aiden is fully aware of the monster he has become, and it’s not a shock-horror revelation either. Throughout the time it takes to blast through the games main-story missions, Aiden begins questioning whether his quest is worth the lives he is destroying, but he carries on anyway until the bloody close.
That is, you do, the player. You could make the decision for Aiden and act out only as a force of good, carefully saving innocent lives from crime in non-lethal ways and dealing with the myriad of depravity ctOS simply isn’t dealing with. But you’re not, are you, you big murderer you.
Even the unborn aren’t safe from Aiden’s vengeful rampage
Regardless, Aiden fully comprehends the consequences of every one of his actions – as did I as a player – and this makes every scene with him in it kind of horrifying. A late game mission sees Aiden sending his family away from Chicago. Aiden’s sister doesn’t beg him to come with them and start afresh, partly because she knows he won’t, partly because she is terrified of what he has become in his twisted search for justice. Instead, she reiterates that no amount of bloodshed will bring Aiden’s dead niece back to life. He hugs her, waves them off, and continues murdering.
When Aiden is finally confronted with the man who set up the hit on him, the event that caused Lena’s death, I was genuinely worried there would be a moment where he forgives him – where Aiden finds piece without violence. The game didn’t offer me a choice – not yet – instead Aiden ruthlessly cuts an old man down and walks away. The scene is completed when Aiden muses – directly to the player – “This is the part where I’m supposed to say I feel empty, right? I’d be lying to myself. I finally feel awake, like I can breathe again.” It’s a great moment, and one that had me right there with him, just for a second, congratulating myself over a virtual corpse.
It’s this willingness to own his actions that makes Aiden Pierce such a compelling character, and one I truly enjoyed embodying. His conviction sets him apart from his peers, and I gleefully watched him enact his revenge on every upstart and bigshot that had wronged him. The fact that each kill truly meant something to Aiden, no matter how dark that meaning was, made the action mean something to me, and made those moments feel that much more satisfying.
Watchdogs has some of the most memorable moments of gaming I’ve enjoyed thus far in 2014 – a fistfight with a naked woman being a particularly weird highlight – but none more so than Watchdogs’ final seconds. Half way through the credits, as I was buzzing from the climactic final chapter’s explosive end – one of Aiden’s endless list of betrayers gives him a call and tells him that whilst they’ll never be best buds again, he’s left Aiden one last present to make up for a favour earlier in the game. “It’s just business,” he says, before hanging up. Honour still means something between rats, it seems. The present is the man we take hostage right at the beginning of the game – the man who fired the gun that killed Lena. Whilst Aiden understood a long time ago that her death wasn’t his doing – he’s just a hitman, after all – it’s still unfinished business. The credits fade in to show Aiden finding the killer trussed up in a warehouse, ready for judgment. Handing control back to the player, the game points out two very obvious options. Kill the man, or walk away. Compared to every other mook you’ve taken down, this guy is weirdly one of the most innocent, despite pulling the trigger himself. Aiden even admits that the two of them are the same.
“How many people have I hurt… killed? Who deserves to die… who decides that?” He asks, before asking you to decide. I didn’t even hesitate. Sparing him wouldn’t fill me with some overwhelming sense of humanity or redemption. It would have felt like a loose end – something the world of Watchdogs vocally reviles throughout the game. I pulled my piece and put a bullet in his breadbasket. At the exact moment I fire, the screen goes black, the shot rings out, and Chicago’s ‘Wake Up Sunshine’ begins to play. It’s a great close, and one that captured perfectly what kind of monster Watchdogs made me.